Death didn't slow down the active life of Emil Ambos.
Editor’s note: In March 2003, former Columbus Monthly editor Eric Lyttle explored the strange and wonderful saga of the man behind one of Green Lawn Cemetery’s most distinctive memorials.
In his day, Emil Ambos was one of the most well-known and respected men of Columbus. And that’s just where the Ambos celebrity likely would have ended in his day—had he not authored an exceptionally wonderful and quirky will.
The 1898 document, which fills 17 legal-sized pages, was said to have been the longest will ever filed in Franklin County at the time. Among its many provisions, Ambos set aside $5,000 for a monument to be erected over his grave that “shall be enduring, attractive, creditable and first class in all respects.” It should be, he wrote, a “life size figure of myself in fishing costume, according to a photograph taken by L.M. Baker about three or four years ago.”
The resulting bronze sculpture, cast in 1901, captures Ambos in his favorite fishing hat and overcoat, sitting on a rock, a minnow bucket at his feet. In one hand, he holds his fishing pole. In the other, in case anyone doubted his prowess, was a stringer of fish—long since disappeared, the stringer snapped in half and the bronze fish stolen by vandals.
Known as the Fisherman of Green Lawn, the Ambos monument overlooks the Wolfe family plot, and is within a long shadow of author James Thurber’s grave. It sits near the banks of the Pit, a small pond located near the center of the cemetery. And, fulfilling Ambos’ wishes, it has endured. The outdoorsman in him would be pleased to know his grave site has become a landmark of sorts among the area’s bird-watchers.
Green Lawn Cemetery is known as one of the top birding spots in the Midwest, a plush 360-acre sanctuary where a wide array of bird species stop along their spring and fall migration routes to and from Lake Erie, along the Scioto River. The Fisherman, and the nearby Pit, have become the unofficial reconnoitering points for birders who gather, socialize on gorgeous May mornings and exchange information. There’s even a moisture-warped guest book in a wooden box nearby, where birders sign in and list their days’ observations. For generations, any Central Ohio birder worth his or her binoculars has known of the Fisherman of Green Lawn, Emil Ambos.
Yet the life-size figure in full fishing regalia, while enduring, is hardly the most interesting aspect of Emil Ambos’ life. It’s not even the most interesting part of his will, which the Ohio State Journal referred to as “the breathings of a philanthropist.”
The will included a provision in which Ambos left money to fund two large banquets, at which dozens of his friends gathered to dine on opulent spreads and raise numerous toasts to his memory. Another provision, the donation of a piece of property with the wish that it become Ambos Park, caused such dissension among the members of the Columbus City Council that they reportedly sought the help of a medium, who conducted a séance to help council reach Ambos in the afterworld. According to one newspaper account, Emil’s ghost chastised council for questioning his gift.
Emil Louis Ambos was born in Columbus on April 22, 1844. His father, Peter Ambos, had come to America from Germany penniless at the age of 17, landing in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1830. There he learned the confectionary business. He moved to Columbus two years later and opened his own restaurant and confectionary shop on South High. Some 12 years later he took a job with the Columbus Machine Co., eventually becoming the plant’s president. The elder Ambos also helped organize the First National Bank in 1863, serving as its president as well.
Peter’s success was further enhanced when he married Dorothea Jaeger in 1841. Dorothea came from one of the most prominent families in Columbus, owners of much of the land that now is German Village. Emil, as well as his two siblings, enjoyed the spoils of success. They grew up in the glorious Ambos Mansion on South High Street, one of Columbus’s most renowned homes. (The home was razed in 1965.)
After graduating from Columbus High School, Emil Ambos attended Center College in Pennsylvania and Kenyon College, where he studied botany and agriculture. With his schooling complete, Ambos returned to Columbus and started a business as a liquor wholesaler and tavern keeper. His saloons were always filled with art and statues, which he loved. He once owned the statue that stood in the front window of the popular Reeb’s Restaurant on East Livingston Avenue. Work, however, had a way of interrupting life for Emil Ambos, and his insatiable appetite for living couldn’t abide by it. At the age of 39, he retired, and his legend began.
He lived in what another newspaper referred to as ‘‘bachelor splendor” in an elegant, three-story brick building at 34½ W. Town St., where the Downtown Lazarus department store would later locate. The home consisted of a reception room, parlors, dining room and lavish sleeping quarters, decorated impeccably with framed artwork and Italian marble statues.
A second-story bridge connected his living quarters to a brick stable, where Ambos cultivated another of his passions. Said to possess one of the city’s finest collections of horses, as well as carriages, Ambos reportedly had different trotting horses and riding ensembles for each day of the week. He spent a lot of time riding, for his greatest passion was a 116-acre tract of land some 10 miles southeast of his Town Street home.
Known as the Ambos Pleasure Farm, the property was split by Winchester Pike, with his spacious retreat home and a lake and stream on the east side of the dirt road, and another smaller lake on the west side. The property, and the two lakes, are located just north of the Rt. 33 exit ramp off l-70,just south of Livingston Avenue.
Each day, Ambos made the two-hour ride from his Town Street home to his east-side retreat, often accompanied by guests that typically included underprivileged children who relished the opportunity to escape to the farm. The lakes were kept well stocked with fish, and a handful of small boats were moored on the banks. A number of outbuildings and pens kept Shetland ponies for the kids to ride, as well as pheasants, peacocks, pigs, cows, chickens, rabbits, ducks, geese and even a parrot. Swings hung from the trees.
Tiny islands dotted the lake west of Winchester Pike, and on one such island Ambos constructed a small cabin, a re-creation of a frontier-era trapper’s shack, with a coonskin stretched out to dry beside the door, a weather vane atop the roof, an old-fashioned pole well with its old oaken bucket in the front yard and a stuffed deer with a full rack standing to the side.
According to one book, “Ohio, The Home of Statesmen—Columbus, Its Capital,” published just before Ambos died, the farm was “the ideal of a man, who has the pleasures of others ever foremost in his heart. Never as happy as when entertaining someone, reaping his reward from the pleasure manifest in his guest. Hardly a day in the year passes that he is not seen in his private carriage, taking some friend out to the farm, or, perhaps, a batch of children who enjoy riding the ponies and riding in the boats, or fishing.”
It was Ambos’ generosity, and not his wealth, that characterized his life. When he died March 26, 1898, the headline over his obituary in the Ohio State Journal said simply, “The Children’s Friend.” The obituary praised Ambos for his compassion: “He has become known in every poor district of the city as ‘Uncle Arne’ and wherever he went there were those who would look on him with honor and reverence. He suffered when the poor felt want and relieved them with his ever open purse and ready charity. If he was kind to the poor … he was more than kind to the children. … Never has a Christmas passed in the last score of years that he did not gather these urchins on the street and give them a feast fit for the gods. … Then, too, he would present to each a new suit of clothes and start him out with a little pocket money on the side to commence the new year in the right way.”
In his will, he left $2,000 to a young black orphan he referred to as “Chicken Foot,” so that he might “have the opportunity of being educated and assisted in a way that will result in his becoming a good, useful and honorable citizen.”
Ambos’ gregarious nature was exemplified in Item 13 of his will, in which he left $1,000 in an account to be overseen by his friend and executor. “As soon as interest to the amount of two hundred dollars shall have accrued and have been paid in, he shall use and expend the same in giving a memorial fish supper to such of my friends as shall be here, together with such other genuine lovers of legitimate angling as in his judgment will know how to appreciate the occasion.”
Ambos also stipulated that another such benefit be hosted when a second $200 of interest again accrued on the $1,000 balance. After that, the entire account was to be donated to the county children’s home.
On Jan. 19, 1905—nearly seven years after his death at the age of 53—the first Emil Ambos Memorial Banquet was held. Forty-four guests were seated at a circular table around a makeshift pond in which live fish swam. Palms, evergreens, blossoming tulips and other potted plants adorned the room, against a painted background of mountains. Upon an elevated platform, the life-size portrait of Ambos that had hung in his bedroom dominated the banquet, illuminated by electric lights—a luxury for the time. The event featured a toastmaster, and guests included then-Columbus Mayor P.H. Bruck and two judges.
‘Three years later, another $200 had accumulated in the account, and, true to Ambos’ wishes, a second banquet was held, a decade after his death. Thirty-five guests wined and dined, all dressed in hunting attire, with the room decorated to approximate a hunting and fishing camp. The floor was entirely covered with sand. A large tent stood in one comer, with a fishing rod affixed, a stack of wood ready for a campfire positioned near the tent’s entrance. Rifles and fishing tackle were in evidence throughout the room. At the banquet’s conclusion, a ceremony was held to donate the $1,000 gift to the children’s home.
Not all of Ambos’ wishes were carried out as planned, though. After doling out all his favorite possessions to all his best friends, his final desire was that the 30-some acres of his Pleasure Farm, including the lake on the west side of Winchester Pike, be donated to the city as Ambos Park.
When the gift came before the Columbus City Council for acceptance, however, council balked. On Sept. 19, 1898, the commissioners voted 9-7 against accepting the donation of land. Ambos had made a few stipulations on the gift—namely that a handful of his friends be named park trustees, and that the city provide the funds for the park’s upkeep, as it would with any of its other parks. Council explained that the land was too far removed from the city boundaries, and that it wanted to name its own trustees.
A week later, one councilman asked his peers to reconsider the vote, and the Ambos gift was placed back on the agenda for discussion. The matter, however, apparently continued to cause consternation, to the point where one councilman, a reported spiritualist, suggested his peers attempt to contact Ambos in the afterworld.
In a 1955 Dispatch story, the late Myron Seifert, a noted local history archivist, wrote, “He [the councilman] was favorable of the gift, but wanted to know the motives of the donor. He decided to try and reach Ambos in the spirit world. So he went to a medium and asked her to try to communicate with Mr. Ambos. The medium consented and a cabinet séance was held.”
‘‘After some trouble,” Seifert continued, “the medium finally announced that the councilman could talk with the departed. ‘Mr. Ambos,’ said the councilman. ‘I desire to know something about the parcel of land you donated to the city. Some of your friends assert that it was one of your pet ideas ... to be known as Ambos Park. Tell me what you desire in the matter, and I will try to see that your wishes are carried out.' "
According to the story by Seifert, Ambos is said to have replied, through the medium: “ ‘I am very thankful to those of my friends who are anxious that my wishes as expressed in my will be carried out. I want to say, however, that I see things in a different light from what I saw them in earthly life, and I am not certain that I want the city to have the land now.’ The councilman queried, ‘What’s the trouble? What has caused you to change your mind?’ Retorted the spirit of Ambos: ‘Well, I’ll tell you. I have altered my opinion about the city and I think it is run by a lot of short skates and I don’t care whether the city accepts the land for that reason.’ "
Council members, according to Seifert, were offended and outraged at being called “short skates” by a ghost, and at the very next meeting voted 11-7 to reject the gift once and for all.
The Ambos Pleasure Farm was sold at a public sale in front of the county courthouse on Dec. 30, 1899, for just under $14,000. In 1932, two of Central Ohio’s golfing pioneers—Herb Bash and Charley Lorms—purchased the land and constructed the 18-hole Berwick Golf Club on the old Ambos farm. The golf course, which closed in the early 1950s, also served as one of the city’s most popular ice-skating locales. Bash would keep the clubhouse—which was Ambos’ old double-gables retreat—open all winter. He erected large light poles and outdoor loudspeakers so patrons could skate to music, and rented out skates and sold sandwiches and hot chocolate. The double-gables home, now a private residence, and both lakes still can be easily seen just off Winchester Pike.
“Who does not know Emil Ambos,” it was written in “Ohio, The Home of Statesmen,” published a year before his death. ‘‘Whole-souled, jolly Emil, fond of a joke, kind and considerate, never turning a deaf ear to the worthy poor. Possessing the stern business tact that has brought success to his father, and the kind, loving heart that made his mother so dear to all who had the privilege of knowing her, ‘Uncle Arne’ always has a kind word for children and it is no uncommon thing to behold him making glad the heart of some little boy or girl, who, in afterlife, never forgets the kind words of this noble man.”
This story originally appeared in the March 2003 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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